I grew up knowing what it means to feel separate from the rest of the world. With three older brothers who never really liked playing house or dress-up, I quickly learned to be content on my own. Our nearest neighbors with kids my age lived about half a mile away—too far to walk or ride a bike by myself. My brothers and I always celebrated those occasions when one mom or the other would drive their kids around the bend in the road.
My oldest brother left for university when I was seven years old; I still remember crying in the school cafeteria after he was gone. He married his high school sweetheart when I was 12, and then my other two brothers became husbands within two weeks of each other the summer after I graduated from high school. That next Christmas was one of the hardest of my life… just my parents and me on Christmas morning, after 18 years of taking turns opening presents with my brothers! It seemed that I had lost two of my greatest treasures in one hectic summer. I would later realize that I had gained quite a bit in exchange…
After my brothers married, my family expanded rapidly. Now I have four nephews and four nieces, and one more on the way. With each addition, our family gatherings have become a bit more chaotic, our summer vacations that much more challenging. Before, my brothers (and later, sisters-in-law) had gone roller-coaster riding or four-wheel driving with me; now they had to consider naps, diapers, feedings, and bedtimes. Despite being surrounded by family, there were times when I felt desperately alone.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t longing for any of the responsibilities my brothers and their wives had. I love being an aunt—playing games with my nieces and nephews, reading books to them, snuggling before bedtime, and then handing the job back over to their moms and dads.
It is hard to describe, this feeling of not belonging. Over the years, I have become adept at handling solitude… at being the ‘odd person out’ at family gatherings. But how do you deal with not belonging when it becomes a daily struggle, a challenge to your self-worth?
On a surface level, this challenge is quite normal when living in a foreign country. Every time I leave my house I am reminded that I do not belong here, from the strange language echoing in my ears to the tiny, gated yards with dogs barking behind the fences. The feeling of not belonging comes at me in waves—sometimes I barely notice, but at other times it seems completely overwhelming. Yet most days I actually enjoy learning about the Slovak culture, discovering the beauty of the language, and finding reasons behind the seemingly-strange opinions of my friends. I am adapting, slowly but surely.
On a deeper level, ‘not belonging’ struck quite a blow to my self-worth my first year in Slovakia. It challenged not so much my ability to adapt to living in a foreign country but my beliefs about who God created me to be. With a social speedometer that went from zero to 60 in the first six months, I struggled to regain a sense of self. I suddenly felt the need to turn myself into a ‘social butterfly’ and subsequently threw myself into proving that I could.
Along the way toward ‘belonging,’ I came dangerously close to losing myself. I stopped consulting God about whom He wanted me to be and instead focused on the person I thought I needed to become. I discovered that those two people could not be more different. I finally realized that the place I was heading had never been God’s idea to begin with. He was not asking me to sacrifice the core of my being; instead, He was pleading with me to just ‘be.’
Be with Him. Be in His Word. Be loved by Him.
You see, I had forgotten to Whom I really belong: “But now you belong to Christ Jesus. Though you once were far away from God, now you have been brought near to Him because of the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13, NLT).
I belong to Christ! And because of that—even with all my foibles and failures—I can stand in God’s presence. God knows me, to the depth of my being. I do not have to pretend to be someone I am not. Why even try, with a God who knows all and sees all?
Over the past few months, my mask has slowly started to come off. It is a daily struggle, really. I am a master at hiding my thoughts and feelings behind a bland smile—one that only God and my closest friends can tell is false. I could probably play poker with the best of them!
But what is the point of all of this secrecy? Why do I not want others to see the real me? The answer that rises to my mind is not pleasant: it is because deep down, I do not believe there is a single reason anyone would even want to see the real me. To me, who I am just is not good enough.
My friends and family would probably say I am crazy—that they love me for who I am and do not want to change me. Those are really nice words. But they cannot silence the voices echoing in my soul, telling me I am not enough. Only Jesus can do that.
First, though, I have to take off the mask with Him, letting Him see the darkest, ugliest parts of my soul. The parts I’m ashamed of—the ones I do not want anyone else to see. The parts Jesus already knows.
And you know what? Somehow, amazingly, inconceivably… He loves and accepts me anyway.
Finally, I belong—to the One who matters most.